When depression hit at the age of 6, the world as she knew flipped on its head. She thought for sure that there was no way God could love her. She also had body image issues and started to have panic attacks at the age of 11 which made her feel utterly alone. Iyanu tried to hide in sports and learned to put on a façade that kept people from seeing the wreck that she thought she was. As she struggled to figure it all, the unexpected happened; Iyanu was sexually assaulted at the age of 13 by someone who she thought was a friend during a church service. The sad experience made her incredibly angry with God and herself. To make matters worse, she was verbally and sexually assaulted through her teenage years. She tried to hide the pain in alcohol, parties, and recreational drugs. These sad events led to a deeper downward spiral and clinical depression that kicked in at the age of 18. She lost hope and a sense of self-worth. Iyanu did not know if tomorrow were a day she would live to see, as she contemplated suicide several times. Today, Iyanu is an Educator with a Master’s degree in Digital Technology & Education. She teaches many students about identity, self, and self-worth. Her teaching practice is steeped in a holistic approach to education, with socio-emotional intelligence a central tenet in her teaching practice. Iyanu also works with various global organizations focused on community development and education. Driven by the motto; ”Love God, Love People”, she partners with organizations to ensure that children, youth, and young adults know that they belong, they matter, and that they are loved no matter what circumstance or situation they may find themselves in life.
Iyanu Akinrinola who moved to Canada with her parents at the age of 10, in an exclusive interview with Sunday Oyinloye, Publisher, Green Savannah Diplomatic Cable, shares some of the stories of her life.
At the age of 6, you had depression, what went wrong?
I cannot say that anything went wrong, to be honest; I did not even know that I had depression at that age. I just knew that emotionally, and mentally, I felt a bit different. I knew that I was overwhelmingly sad and that I did not like the way of things around me, in terms of culture and expectations. I did not always know how I felt, but my feelings were always intense. One of such feelings was the first time I wished to die because the pressures of being a girl in Nigeria were too much. I did not want to kill myself, but I wanted to die.
Were you maltreated by your parents or what happened?
No, I was not. My parents are very loving which was why I started by saying that it was not necessarily a particular thing that happened, it was more of a combination of things. Mentally, I was detached from a lot of things. Just before that age, I remember, a couple of incidents that happened. Nigeria is a patriarchal society, and I used to argue with my parents a lot about this, the difference in expectations for boys and girls. I used to ask why I did not get to do some things simply because I am a girl. It did not make sense to me, and it was constantly on my mind. Another incident involved a young boy that I liked. Most times, all the kids played around after school. I have never shared this story out loud before. I remember the boy asked me to meet him behind a building on school premises after school. When I got there, he cornered me and said that he knows that I like him and that if I liked him, I would show him my underwear. At first, I was trying to argue and figure out how to get away from there; but then I realized that it was just me and him, and he was blocking my exit. He was stronger than me. I tried to say no, that what he requested was not right, but he said that if I did not do what he asked me to do, he would tell everyone that I showed him my underwear and that if I showed it to him, he would not tell anybody. I felt I had no choice, so I had to pull up my school uniform and showed him my underwear. Some other kids were also playing and one of them ran to the corner as I pulled up my uniform, saw what was happening, and ran away. I was grateful for that kid because that distraction was my opportunity to escape. I ran after the other schoolboy and joined whatever game they were playing. Looking back, that encounter broke something inside of me.
Were you of the same age as the boy?
Yes, he was my classmate. I did not realize the impact that sort of helplessness would have on me mentally, especially going to class each day not knowing when he would tell someone what I did. That coupled with other pressures, lead to thoughts of death later that year. I just wanted to end the mental anguish. Not that I wanted to kill myself, but I felt that was the only way to stop it.
You didn’t share it with your parents?
No, I did not tell anybody because Nigeria was and is still a patriarchal society. As a girl, the consensus at that time, and in some ways still is, that you learned to deal with whatever life brought your way. I also knew that it was a society where the boys get away with things like this. They are not always held to the full weight of accountability for their actions. For me then, there was no point because I thought that no one would believe me. I fixated on the parts that I could control, and thought others would as well; for example, why did you go behind the building in the first place? So, I just chose not to share it because I thought it was going to harm me more than help to voice any of this. Which was a mental cage for me as a young girl who was raised to voice her ideas and opinion, who was encouraged to use her voice. I just did not want to get into trouble, so I decided to develop a thick skin and a vault in my mind where I shoved every bad experience. I developed a kind of a shell to protect myself.
Seven years after that you were sexually assaulted, precisely when you were 13 years, where did it happen, Nigeria or Canada?
It happened in Canada. I can tell you how it happened but I cannot tell you why because I don’t know. It happened at a Church. This incident was a catalyst to a spiral like no other. God saved me from myself on many occasions from what would have resulted in sure death. There were times as a young girl when I would be walking on a bridge and I would stop and look below and wonder what it would be like to jump off. I would even look around to see if I were isolated enough to go through with it. As I got older and started driving, I loved to speed (150 – 160 km/h), oftentimes, I would wonder what it would feel like not to press the brake when I got too close to another car or as I was getting off the highway. To cause a crash and let myself not be here anymore. Horrible thoughts.
Go ahead and share your experience:
The way it happened was very unusual. And I say that because this individual and I were good friends, no animosity between us. He was someone I knew very well and was about a year or two older than me. We were in the same youth group; he was someone that the church and my parents knew. It was a regular Sunday Service (laughs). Looking back now, I can laugh because I have gone through the process of healing. That Sunday, I needed to go to the bathroom. To paint you a picture, to get to the bathroom, you must enter a hallway that led to a door. When you walked through that door, there was another hallway that split the path to the doors of men’s room and women’s room. As I was working through the first door, he was standing in the second hallway, but I never thought much of it. I suddenly noticed that the way he was looking at me was different. I had no idea what happened or why it happened. He just grabbed me and started to wrestle me to the floor. I was very thin. Skinny and tall. He grabbed me and as he wrestled me, his hands started to roam. That was I realized that I was in a dangerous situation and needed to get out of it. He could not get me to the ground, so he tried to pin me against the wall with his hand still roaming all over my body. I fought back hard. I pushed and tried to kick him repeatedly. At a point, I managed to break free and ran into the ladies’ bathroom, into a stall and locked the door.
Why didn’t you raise an alarm?
I was conditioned, I am a Nigerian. The church service was going on and the sermon had started, you do not interrupt the service, especially when the sermon has started. I did not raise alarm, I could not because I was scared that I would get in trouble for doing so. The service had started, and I didn’t want to interrupt.
So what followed when you ran into the bathroom?
He would not give up. He walked into the ladies’ bathroom and started banging on the stall door, not just slightly, but as if he wanted to break it down. I was scared that he was going to make too much noise and interrupt the service, I thought adults would come and find him in the bathroom and thought we were being mischievous, so I decided I had to open the door fast so that we both did not get into trouble for interrupting the service. As soon as I opened the door, he grabbed me, spun me around, and had me in a headlock from behind, as he tried to reach into my pants. I told myself that no matter what happened, I could not let him pin me against any surface. Tapping into my athletic skills, I made myself heavy and centered myself in the middle of the room far from surfaces. He then dragged me back into the hallway which was narrower and again tried to wrestle me down or pin me against a wall. I kicked off every surface as soon as my legs could reach and clung onto frames to keep from going down. I fought him with everything inside me. At a point, I kicked off a wall and he hit his back against the opposite wall and had to release his arm from my neck. Luckily, at that moment, a young kid walked into the hallway to use the bathroom. I remember staring at this kid and half yelling, get somebody here right now. My assailant ran away when he heard that.
Eventually, he did not have his way.
No, he did not. I thank God for that every day. None of them ever did. Interestingly, at the church, I stood in the hallway waiting, but no one ended up coming for me. I walked out of that hallway, took the path that went upstairs to a second level, sat on the stairs, and tried to cry; I did not end up crying because if I did, I would have to tell everyone what was wrong. I was so angry at everything. I was angry at the guy, I was angry at the church, I was angry at the world. I was angry at God. I also remember telling myself that I could never tell anyone what happened, no one would believe me, and it felt like it did not happen at all. A part of me still feels like that incident, all the incidents were something that happened to someone else. I detached mentally, I learned how not to feel. I stuffed everything in my that was allected in the vault I had created. I kept it all to myself.
Was it that experience that led you into recreational drugs?
No, it was not that experience. There were many reasons. I was battling body image issues, cognitive dissonance, anxiety. Remember, I moved to Canada when I was just 10. Nigeria was a place for Nigerians, it was home. However, coming to Canada, I experienced something I had never experienced in Nigeria. Racism. It was everywhere. In the school system, the type of people that accepted you, the limits placed on your abilities, even in the stores you entered. In school, my first teacher, I will never forget (he passed away now), was a white man. Let me be clear that I was a particularly good student, a trait I learned in Nigeria where education is highly valued. But this teacher would yell at me for reading faster than other students, or for reading more than the number of pages we were asked to read. He would always say that I was looking for attention, when in fact, I had just learned that going above and beyond was the way to stay ahead in school in Nigeria. So, I went to my late teacher and told him that the kids were calling me names, mocking my name, and harassing me on the playground. I did not know what bullying was then. I told him that kids stepped on me on the carpet, pulled my hair for fun, and did other things that physically and emotionally hurt me. He looked at me as he stepped to walk away and said, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. He did not even talk to me or the kids in question, he just walked away. I was 11 years old when that happened. I figured that teachers did not care. I figured that if my teacher did not want to help, no other teacher would want to hear about what I was dealing with. So, I learned to absorb the bullying and locked them in my vault I labeled bad experiences. I did not know I would lock so much more in that vault. I give that example to say that there was a combination of things throughout my life that pushed me to welcome the brief reprieve of recreational drugs. I felt like I was on my own and I needed outlets to get out of my head. I played sports, volleyball, soccer, and others. I was highly active, which gave me a limit I probably would not have given myself. A few months after the assault was when I tried alcohol for the first time. It was completely accidental. I was at a wedding with my dad and there was an open bar at the wedding. I went to the bar to ask for a drink because I was thirsty. I did not have any drink in mind, so I figured the bartenders would give me any soft drink. When the bartender asked me if I wanted a chocolate martini, I assumed it was chocolate milk in a martini glass, so I said yes. When the bartender handed me a glass with a clear liquid, I was confused and it smelled like chocolate, so I shrugged. I had a sip and it tasted like chocolate, but I felt the difference when I swallowed. I wanted to be rebellious because I had never had alcohol until that point, so I did not tell the bartender I was underage, I kept drinking it. When I finished the drink, I had a funny kind of feeling, a different feeling. But I had no way to get my hands on more alcohol, so I moved on. Fast forward to the age of 16, I was invited to a party and I ended up getting properly drunk that night. It was the first night I didn’t feel any weight or heaviness on my chest. It was the first night I did not care about consequences or limits. I liked the feeling. I did not get home till about 2 am that night. I met my mom weeping at the door because she did not know what could have happened to me, she thought I had been badly hurt. I remember staring at my mom and not feeling any remorse. In a young woman’s life, there are many things you look forward to, especially at a young age. When those things become traumatic events, they tear you down mentally. Some people look at their first crush, their first relationship, or their first kiss with fond memory, I cannot. I was assaulted on all accounts. When you also look back at your memories and find them laced with traumatic events, something inside of you breaks. Getting drunk that night was the first time I felt light. I did not have to battle my thoughts. I liked that feeling. I wanted to keep that feeling. For what felt like the first time, my body and mind were cooperating. My body was detached and so was my mind. That kind of opened the door to other things.
So how were you able to come out of drugs and alcohol?
I will start by saying that I am not an addict by nature, and for this, I am incredibly grateful to God. I say that with a lot of gratitude in my heart because I had many friends who started on the same trajectory as me and got addicted to many different substances. I watched their lives spiral because they could not kick habits. For me, I do not get addicted to things. I think a part of it is because I learned to mentally and emotionally detach at such a young age. If I had an addictive trait, I genuinely do not know where I would have ended up, I can honestly say that I probably would be dead. For example, I remember being at a party, and a friend walked up to me and handed me a sachet of a foreign substance. I still do not know what drug I took till today. I simply put it in my mouth and went on with the party. I do not take the mercy of God for granted, nor do I take life for granted, because I have witnessed multiple friends almost O.D on far less than I took. I also lost count of the times that being high off a substance, mixing substances, or being extremely drunk till the point that I blacked out left me in very risky situations. I honestly do not know how I got out of those situations without worse scars than my memories, but I am grateful for the friends who surrounded me, and those who took it upon themselves to take care of me in those times, even strangers. I saw the dangers I was putting myself in and could not keep up with the version of the person I had become any longer. Also, I thank God that I have incredibly supportive parents because at a point my mom became my alarm clock. She would check in on me every morning at 7 am for a whole year, as if she knew I needed a reason to not allow myself to jump off the deep end. Because I knew she would call without fail, I would push myself to the limit that still allowed me to mutter a few words to her on the phone in the morning. I was rude to her for the first month, but she did not give up on me. After the first month, I got used to her early morning phone calls and even panicked the first day she could not call me because she had to deal with some things at work. I called her around 7:30 am terrified that something had happened, but she explained that she simply had started her morning later than she expected. So that kind of kept me in check. Her relentless show of care safeguarded me. Another part of it was that I knew recognized the darkness, I recognized the despair. I knew that it was a part of me, and as much as I was engaging in self-destructive activities, I equally wanted to get out of the darkness and despair. I just did not know how to do so. I wanted to escape everything I was doing that was not good. I never did anything out of pleasure but out of pain. When something you do takes away your pain, even momentarily, you relish in it. But after a while, when it starts to add to your pain, then you must decide to either remove the extra burden or count it as a part of your norm. I could not handle any more weight, so I walked away from them all when they got too much.
Have you ever been loved by a guy?
Yes, I have been loved and I have loved. If you tie that to what I said before, what should have been a liberating experience, was one of the hardest times of my life. I was still in the depths of my despair, and though I knew I was in love with this wonderful man, I did not know how to love. There was this guy that I genuinely loved, and I loved him with everything I had; except everything I had was broken – mentally and emotionally, so I was constantly battling myself and taking it out on him. It became very frustrating wanting to be happy but not knowing how to be.
What does it take for someone who went through such an experience to become an Educator?
For myself, I have always had a sense of fairness. My experiences with the education system in Canada as an African upset me. Education was not an area I wanted to get into, but it was an area I always found myself in, and at the point when I was returning to my faith and kindling my relationship with God, I felt the Lord leading towards education, so in obedience to the direction of God, I embarked on the journey. As I embarked on the journey, I began to see the thread of my passion since I was a little girl. I remember in Grade 11, I was about 15 turning 16 years old; I just wanted to get out of High School, because I never wanted to go further than that, but dropping out was not an option my parents would allow, so I picked courses I could just coast through. I had a teacher, Ms. Lesser, who had been my coach and was now my guidance counselor. She called me into her office and told me that she expected better than what I had on my schedule for me. She gave me 2 days to re-do my schedule and put me in a leadership course which was taught by Ms. Roberge. Ms. Roberge is the educator who taught me that compassion and education went hand in hand. I can count on my fingers the number of great teachers I met along my academic journey. They saw me as a human being. I then began to wonder how learning may be different for students if all teachers were to be like the teachers that had a positive impact on me. One of the things we had to do in this course was to go to the middle school across the road and help students transition to high school. I remember stepping into the classroom that I was to co-lead and feeling like it was exactly right. It was scary being in front of the class, but I loved working with the students. It later became something I did for fun, volunteering until I turned a hobby into a profession. I sat with a mentor one afternoon and I was explaining to her how I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life career-wise, and she said something that struck me. She said, “go to Teacher’s college, you’re always teaching. Try and if you truly don’t like it, then you can say that you made a decision from an informed position.” I followed her advice, but I have to say that I did not like the experience of Teachers college; it was gruesome. With emotional struggles and pains in my heart, I still went through it. It was one of the toughest seasons of my life, but I am grateful for the experience because it was in learning how to educate that I learned how to unlearn and relearn. It was this experience that brought me face to face with how to begin to learn about myself. I thank God that He used a decision made begrudgingly to turn my life around from the inside. It was in Teacher’s College that I began to seek help. It was during the time that I was developing my understanding of what learning is that I began to open up to others, I began to learn about and accept professional help spiritually, psychologically, and physically to deal with the vault of pain.
What is it about your Million Dollar Testimony project?
My brother and I started this project as a way of raising awareness of the work that is being done by organizations locally and globally to individuals who do not have access to services or opportunities that you and I have. A few years ago, I and my brother started to request donations instead of gifts on special occasions and events we celebrated. These donations were asked to be made to non-profit organizations we have worked alongside as a way of raising awareness and fundraising. We realized how privileged we are to be alive and well today. We still have our struggles and areas of need, but to have gone through so much and come out on the other side, our hearts are stirred to come alongside others to support as well. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we saw how hard-hit some of these organizations are. We also know that there are children, mothers, families that may be heavily inflicted not by the pandemic, but by the lack of access to services provided by these organizations. So prayerfully, we launched a project to ask family, friends, neighbors, whoever would like to, to support the Million Dollar Testimony and help to raise a million dollars before the end of the year for three specific organizations.
The purpose is to support, encourage and come alongside organizations that have dedicated themselves to providing for individuals within impoverished communities, particularly during this COVID-19 pandemic. The focus will be on children and youth who live on the streets of different countries in Africa (through Opportunity for African Children and Youth), children and youths who live with disabilities and have no access to proper healthcare or treatment (through the Noor Society), as well as children and mothers who do not have access to health care, financial help, educational resources, or basic goods due to the prevalence of drugs, crime, poverty, and homelessness (through Mc Kids – Hogor Genesis). People can learn more about these organizations at